Part V: On the Run
Two miles. Seventeen minutes and thirty two seconds. The slowest pace I had run in over a year.
For a long time I hated running. As a freshman in high school, myself and several other friends on the cross county team — which I had only signed up for as a contingency in case I didn’t make the tennis team in the spring — would sneak off the one mile lap around our school to a friend’s house during practice. We’d lounge around until we saw the rest of the team coming back around for the final lap and then rejoin the pack — our coach oblivious to the deception.
My attitude towards running didn’t change until medical school.
At first it was purely a matter of convenience. A trip to the gym entailed packing clothes and driving 15 minutes in both directions instead of a five minute walk from the dorm. Suddenly a 30 minute run was the best option for an efficient study break.
It wasn’t long before I was running a 3 mile loop several days a week. As my endurance improved I’d mix in longer 5 mile runs and even occasionally tackle the 7 mile loop around Salem Lake.
Then last summer, I got a Fitbit Surge GPS watch for my birthday. Suddenly, I was not only running 10–15 miles a week, but running fast, thanks to my newfound ability to track my pace while running.
Last October I ran a 5k in Indianapolis at 6:39 pace. A month later I ran the annual 5 mile Turkey Trot in Charlotte at 6:49 pace. If it sounds like I’m bragging a bit, well, I guess I am. I was in the best cardio shape of my life and while I wasn’t threatening to win any of those races, running at a sub-7 minute pace nevertheless felt like a real accomplishment.
But here’s the thing. I still don’t love running.
I love how I feel afterwards — the dependable endorphin high combined with a personal sense of accomplishment. I enjoy the challenge of trying to push myself to run faster than I have in the past. I savor just being outdoors and breathing fresh air.
But in most cases, when I’m actually running, the only thought on my mind is “how many more miles left?”
I’ve developed ways to distract myself. For one, I pretty much only listen to uptempo rap (Run the Jewels, Yeezus, etc,) or triumphant soundtrack music (i.e Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed) when running. I run outside, where I can be distracted by scenery — even if it means braving 95 degree weather in July. These work pretty well, but the anticipation of finishing inevitably builds as I enter the final mile of any run.
That dynamic has begun to shift over the past few weeks.
After being sidelined for the week of my first infusion as my port healed, I was finally able to get out and run the following Monday. It didn’t go smoothly. I ran way too fast for the first mile, then ended up intermittently walking for the rest of the three mile route. On Wednesday I ran all three miles. On Friday I ran them a bit faster. By Sunday, I was back under 8 minute per mile pace.
Then I got my second infusion this past Monday.
It’s a surreal experience to go from feeling great to feeling like absolute shit in a 24 hour span. I felt practically 100% on Sunday afternoon. By Monday evening, 60% would be generous.
My appetite was gone. My mind was again immersed in the fog of chemo brain. The reality that every treatment week would suck started to set in.
The one silver lining of chemotherapy — at least so far — is that it hasn’t been as physically crippling as I expected. So despite feeling pretty awful, on Tuesday afternoon I walked down to the fitness center in my apartment and got on the treadmill.
Each deep breath was invigorating. Each stride reassuring. For seventeen minutes and thirty two seconds I triumphed over chemotherapy.
It didn’t matter that I would end up feeling crummy again just a few hours later. I suddenly had a weapon to fight back against chemotherapy.
For the first time I truly love running.